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Lifeboats: Long fight for secure evacuation

Efforts to enhance the safety of lifeboats on the NCS began in the mid-noughties and are still in full swing. Within a few years, it may be possible to say “Look to Norway” in this area as well.

Success in the long term
The story of mechanical pipe handling confirms that innovation requires time, money, commitment – and courage. These regulatory requirements created a storm in the industry when they were introduced in the 1990s, but worker safety improved sharply.

History also demonstrates that the industry must see the challenges, be innovative in finding good solutions and not least display the ability to adopt newly developed equipment. Mechanical pipe handling is now also taken for granted internationally. It represents a success story.

The PSA is now working to achieve the same outcome for offshore lifeboats.

Extensive damage to the superstructure of one of the freefall lifeboats installed on the Veslefrikk B platform in the North Sea was exposed during testing in 2005. When the same happened shortly afterwards on the Kristin field in the Norwegian Sea, both the PSA and the industry understood that action had to be taken.

“Lifeboats are your last chance of getting away in an emergency where every other means of evacuation fails,” says Rune Solheim.

“That’s why it’s so important that they can do their job,” adds the PSA staffer, who has been closely following the lifeboat affair with colleague Sigurd Robert Jacobsen.

The petroleum industry established a project which uncovered a number of weaknesses with existing freefall lifeboats.
Similar problems have also been identified for davit-launched craft.

This work thereby became relevant for everyone working in the petroleum activity on the NCS.

It quickly became clear that freefall and davit-launched lifeboat designs were based on maritime regulations. These had not been adequately modified for the special conditions in the off shore business on the NCS. Norwegian petroleum operations are also characterised by round-theclock activity, regardless of season and weather.

“Our regulations include a functional requirement that it must be possible to evacuate personnel on installations to a safe area under all conditions,” Mr Jacobsen says.

Weaknesses in both freefall and davit-lowered lifeboats, with associated launch gear, relate to structural strength of both hull and superstructure, G forces, propulsion and buoyancy/stability.

“As a result, a large proportion of existing lifeboats and launching systems have significant weaknesses, and so fail to meet the demand for evacuation under all conditions,” says Mr Solheim.

To compensate for this, a number of installations must reduce their staffing in bad weather – which can have consequences for safe and efficient operation.

New industrial standards based on the latest findings have been developed for freefall lifeboats and launch systems.

These must be revised as fresh questions “Lifeboat owners – in other words, operators/rig contractors – have an overall responsibility to ensure that the equipment used is suitable for its purpose and complies with the regulations,” says Mr Jacobsen.

Statoil is the primary operator on the NCS to have accepted the consequences of the latest information, launching a project to build new freefall lifeboats which meet the revised standard.

“We haven’t observed a similar commitment among the other operators or rig contractors with freefall craft,” Mr Jacobsen reports. “They’ll be in our sights in the time to come.”

Despite the weaknesses which have been identified, the PSA still regards freefall craft as the best available technology for lifeboat evacuation on the NCS.

A new standard for davit launching systems has been drawn up, but work on a corresponding norm for the actual lifeboats using such equipment has yet to start.

Such lifeboats are common on mobile units which observe maritime regulations, but can also be found on fixed installations such as Veslefrikk A, Ekofisk, Ula and Valhall.

One of the most serious weaknesses identifi ed for davit launched craft is the risk of using them when significant wave heights are greater than five metres, Mr Solheim explains.

The lifeboat affair has several parallels with the fight over mechanical pipe handling on the drill floor in the 1990s – the process takes many years, and new equipment must be developed, tested and adopted to comply with the regulations.

“Achieving the same level of safety must be the goal, regardless of the type of installation/unity, the lifeboat model and when this was adopted,” Mr Jacobsen emphasises.

“To prevent accidents during lifeboat evacuation, we consider it necessary to take action through the regulations and in other ways.

“Norway has an expressed goal of being a world leader in HSE. Players on the NCS must accept that this also extends to the stock of lifeboats.”

This article was published in the publication "Safety - status and signals 2010-2011".